- Matt Fortuna, ESPN Staff Writer
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Cierre Wood began the season as Notre Dame's starting running back. Jonas Gray has started the Irish's last two games. No, there isn't an injury or dip in performance. The two have just been seemingly interchangeable in the backfield this season.
Wood is 42nd in the nation with 89.8 rushing yards per game. Gray, who averages 66 rushing yards per game, ranks 83rd. Notre Dame is one of just eights teams with multiple players among the top 100 in rushing yards per game.
Here, Wood, a junior, talks about the dynamic with Gray, the improved short-yardage game and the running backs' blocking efforts.
It may not have registered until everyone looked up the stats the next day, but Saturday was your first-ever second-half comeback win under Brian Kelly. Do you look at that as maybe a step or a sign? Is that something that's talked about on the team?
CW: Not really. It's just fighting back, really just that will to not give up and keep going, which we base everything we do off of, which is the next man in. A lot of guys were playing injured that game, but everybody just kept going in because we knew what the task was to come back and win. And we got the job done.
Jonas said after [Wake Forest] missed that field goal late, his first thought on the sideline was, Give me and Cierre the ball, we're gonna run this clock out, we're gonna win. And he said that's a mentality that's kind of had to foster over the course of the year. How have you seen the confidence in the run game grow and know that's your situation right there?
CW: The run game has been a huge factor this whole year. It started off good in the beginning and it's still going strong. Now we base everything off of our run game. We have to have a physical presence in the run game in order for everything else to fall into place and stuff like that. So in order to get our jobs done at all times, we always need to start running the ball.
How much easier is your life when you have a back who can step in and do the things you do?
CW: It's extremely easy, to be honest with you. While he's in there, he's doing his thing. While I'm in there I'm doing my thing. We both go in there, we're both gonna produce. So somebody's gonna get the job done.
Is it particularly fulfilling to see the light kind of click on for him during his last chance, to overcome the fumbles in the past and really have a strong senior season?
CW: Yeah. Since the beginning of the summer I told him we're gonna have to run the tables. We're gonna have to start everything and put the team on our backs and stuff like that. And that's what we did. I told him we're gonna start the run game and it was gonna come from us too, as far as starting it off and getting everything rolling, and that's exactly what we did. I'm happy to see Jonas doing great. I'm his No. 1 fan. Every time he scores I'm always the first one out there to give him a high-five and stuff like that. Coming here, Jonas wasn't playing that much and I'm very very happy to see him making it.
It didn't seem like you guys really missed a step when Braxston [Cave] went out, but when you do see a member of the offensive line go down, particularly at such a big spot like the center, what's the running backs' philosophy there? Obviously you're not on the line with them, but what are you thinking?
CW: I wasn't worried about anything. As soon as Mike [Golic Jr.] came in there I told him, "Let's go. The ball is dropped. We're rolling with or without you, really." But he knew that coming in. Just like you said, we didn't miss a beat.
One of the things you guys have talked about throughout the year — and that doesn't really get a lot of attention — is the blocking by the running backs. It's one of those things [running backs coach Tim] Hinton was saying earlier: People won't know you're doing a good job until you do a bad job and there's a sack or something that was your responsibility. How much pride do you guys take in that, and how much have you learned to embrace that?
CW: We take a huge amount of pride in that. That's very very important to us as running backs and to our team as a whole. We haven't allowed a sack, as far as from the backs, this whole season. We wanna go the whole season without allowing any sacks as far as from our end. Our coach always says to be a Notre Dame running back you have to play physical and you have to pass-protect. And that's one of our code of conduct rules that we have. That's basically what we live by and we just get the job done.
It seems like the short-yardage game, that was something at Michigan that wasn't there for you guys late in the game but obviously was this past week at Wake Forest. Is that more of a mentality thing? Is it a physical thing? How has that kind of manifested itself over the course of seven or eight weeks?
CW: It's a mindset really. You've gotta get into that mindset where you just feel like, hey, nobody's stopping you, no one man can take you down. Coming into the season I put that on myself and that's been there this whole time. I told Jonas we both have to have that mentality at all times. And he jumped on-board with it. We just hit the ground running ever since.